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15 April 2021

Long-distance love: The couples torn apart by Covid

Across the world, thousands of binational couples and families separated by international coronavirus travel restrictions long to be reunited.

By Sophie McBain

When Ursula Souza, a sales assistant who used to work on cruise ships and now lives in the town of Maricá, Brazil, asks her two-year-old twins to point to Mummy, they point to her. When she asks them to point to Grandma, they point to her mother. When she asks them to point to Daddy, they point to her phone.

The twins have met their father, Stephen McCulloch, only twice. He was there at their birth, on a visit when he and Souza also got married, and then at their first birthday, in February 2020. He said goodbye to his family at their home in Brazil, expecting they would reunite in the UK as soon as Souza had been granted her British visa. He hasn’t seen them since.

McCulloch, 30, and Souza, 37, met six years ago when they were both working in duty-free shops on cruise ships. At first, they bonded over a shared dislike of their manager, but soon their friendship deepened. They enjoyed watching football together, going out drinking, talking for hours. A mutual friend recognised the spark between them before they did and set them up.

When Souza fell pregnant in 2018, she had to leave her job and return to Brazil, and McCulloch went back to the UK to find a home and an office job, and to prepare to support his family. He pressed on with Souza’s visa application over the next few years, and it was finally accepted last December. He planned to fly out to Brazil that month to pick up Souza and the twins and fly back with them, but the reimposition of lockdown restrictions in the UK scuppered that plan. Souza then booked a ticket to the UK for her and the twins, but her flight was cancelled and the discovery of a dangerous new Covid variant prompted the UK to effectively ban travel from Brazil and a handful of other countries.

[see also: “A threat to the world”: Brazil’s Covid-19 tragedy]

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Now, like so many international families, their separation is open-ended and their lives feel on hold, they told me when the three of us spoke over Zoom. McCulloch calls his wife and children every day. He tries to be the steady one, to reassure them both that they will be fine even though he’s not convinced of this himself. Souza has been suffering from panic attacks. With two toddlers to care for she has found it hard to make time to meditate, exercise or speak to a therapist, though anti-depressant medication has been helping a bit.

Love is Not Tourism (LINT), an online network of over 47,000 members, has been campaigning over the past year for binational couples kept apart by international coronavirus travel restrictions to be reunited, through such measures as “sweetheart exemptions” to travel bans. Rachael Pereira, a 37-year-old executive assistant who lives in Hertfordshire, has been working as an administrator for the UK chapter of LINT, which since it formed in January has acquired over 1,000 members. Over a year into the pandemic, many of its members are feeling the strain of months-long, indefinite separations. In February, the group surveyed around 400 members and found 87 per cent were reporting mental health problems. It began sharing contact details for the Samaritans after a member recently tweeted that she was suicidal.

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Pereira has not seen her boyfriend, who lives in South Africa, since March 2020. She had planned to fly to see him for Christmas, but she cancelled her flight after her local area was placed under tier 4 restrictions. (When she phoned her airline, they advised her that no one would be able to check what tier she was in, but she’s a rule follower – and that, she emphasised, was also the point: many members of LINT are rule-abiding, safety-conscious, and unwilling to risk fines for breaking restrictions.) All direct flights to South Africa have since been suspended because of a coronavirus variant.

[see also: Why England is dangerously exposed to new Covid-19 variants]

LINT is currently crowd-funding to hire lawyers to seek clarity on whether the UK government considers reunifying with a partner a permissible reason to travel. It has achieved over 100,000 signatures for an online petition to government, asking for reunifications for couples or close relatives to be classed as essential travel. The argument is that if it’s safe enough for people to travel for business – provided they follow quarantine and self-isolation guidance – why can’t you travel for love?

Although the British media often discusses bans on international travel in terms of foreign holidays, a large number of Britons have close relatives or partners who live overseas. It is hard to put a figure on how many couples or families have been kept apart by travel restrictions, though various government migration statistics hint at the potential scale of the problem: around 6.2 million people living in the UK have the nationality of a different country, and it is estimated that around 4.7 million UK citizens live overseas. In 2019, when we could all travel freely, people in the UK made 23.5 million visits to friends or family abroad. Last year the British government issued 154,658 visas and travel permits for family reasons – an 18 per cent drop on the previous year. 

While planes remain grounded, life goes on. Babies are born, children grow up, relatives die without final goodbyes. I spoke with a healthcare worker in the Netherlands (she did not want her name published) who last saw her British boyfriend in July. She fell pregnant, but miscarried at ten weeks. At around the same time, he was in a serious accident. “I felt like I was in a nightmare. It felt like something from a movie,” she told me, sobbing over Zoom. There was so much she wanted to talk to him about, but that she felt she could not share with him on-screen. “I don’t want him to see me on the other side, crying,” she said, “knowing what it does to him, mental-wise, too.”

She recently contacted her doctor and midwife to request evidence of her miscarriage, so that her boyfriend could present it at the airport alongside his requisite “declaration to travel” form. He is planning to visit her this weekend. She is worried something will nevertheless go wrong, and he won’t be permitted to leave. She won’t be able to relax until he texts her to say he’s made it through security. She can’t wait to finally hold him. “But the emotional damage is done. The mental damage is done,” she said.

Should non-essential foreign travel resume in the UK from 17 May, as the government has suggested, it may be possible for more long-distance couples to reunite. But a lot also depends on the regulations imposed by the second country involved, on the nature of the proposed “traffic light system”, the availability of flights, and whether couples – some of whom have lost their jobs because of the pandemic – can pay for travel, expensive Covid tests and hotel quarantines.

McCulloch has applied to extend Souza’s visa – it had stipulated that she should enter the UK by March, even though it is unclear whether she would have been allowed entry under the current rules – and for now they still don’t know when they will meet again. Direct flights between Brazil and the UK are prohibited. He is still saving up to pay for the ten-day hotel quarantine, which is required of everyone arriving from Brazil. He can already picture what it will be like when she and his children can finally come to him. “I’ll probably be camping outside the hotel,” he said. “What I’m looking forward to the most is she’ll be in that hotel, and nothing can take her away from us any more at that point. If she’s in the hotel that’s it, we’ve just got to wait it out.”